• John R

Me Ignore Plain Facts


Tulips, irises, phlox, alliums, hyacinth, and some other growy things compete for the last bits of open space.

There are fundamental gardening tenets that you shouldn’t ignore. In fact, they are so basic, so common sense, that you couldn’t possibly ignore them.

But you do.

I said “you” in those opening paragraphs, but I didn’t mean to imply you the reader specifically. I was just doing a little editorial ducking and covering behind the second-person pronoun “you,” rather than using the much more descriptive and accurate first person pronouns, “me” and “I.”

But me do.

It happened innocently enough. There was a huge nothing in the beds by the back fence, a yawning void of bone-dry mulch covering soil that was equally dry and compacted as hard as oak plank flooring. Nary a growing green thing. Even the invasive plants refused to populate this botanical vacuity despite the fact I’d assured them there would be water and bat guano and other perks freely provided, but they turned up their cockleburs and grew the other way. Ingrates—just when I need you. I planted stuff—bushes and some perennials and things I lost the little plastic tags to and had no idea what they were—and hoped for the best. Which would be anything living and close to green in color for at least part of the year.

It was at this stage of the game that I willfully ignored a gardening fundamental: Don’t plant plants too close together. In my defense, I couldn’t help myself. There was all this empty space just begging to be planted or more to the point, covered up.

None of what transpired was my fault. Put the blame on the greenhouse where we buy our plants. Have you seen this greenhouse? It’s roughly the size of an aircraft carrier and the far end squishes to a tiny vanishing point. You step inside (okay, Me step inside) and you’re instantly surrounded by thousands of healthy plants all screaming: Good Gaea, get me out of this tiny black plastic container! My roots are bound tighter than a nun’s asshole!

Me, being a sucker for pleading plants—especially ones that offer up discomforting metaphors—thinks: Why just two penstemon when five gets you more color sooner? And while we’re on the subject, Why just white? Why not this incredible version called Stratospheric Blue? And a couple three of those, whatever they are, because it says on this little plastic tag that they grow fast. And wouldn’t these little guys be cool although it says on the accompanying tag that they need well-drained soil and the clay soil at the back of our property has the consistency of an engine block. But, nothing ventured!

I hustled boxes of them home. Out in the Empty Space I set out the plants in their little plastic pots, arranging them in a pleasing nonsensical pattern. I kept shifting around their positions because there were so many variables, given the quantity of starts I’d selected and my deep desire to cover up bare soil as soon as possible, possibly within the next hour. I cored out holes and settled my new purchases into nests of organic planting compost. I watered those aching-to-be-free roots.

Eventually some died, sure. Well, a preponderance, actually. But some hung in there, as grim as conditions might have been—wrong pH, bad magnesium, sporadic sunlight—and managed to survive. Those that didn’t make it were quickly replaced with randomly selected, your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine experimental plantings, usually things that sounded colorful and resistant to inept and intermittent care. I didn’t care that the tags clearly instructed: Plant 18 inches apart. Why plant eighteen inches apart when by any standard of logic twelve inches apart would be even better and fuller and greener! Do I hear ten? Me do!


Cranes bill, tulips, and valerian try to stop a tsunami of Japanese maple.

And sure enough, a couple of years later the empty beds started to fill in. Things got leafy, flowery, bulky. They filled in nicely, I might even say exceptionally (taking into account that I have a low bar). And they grew. And grew.

Another year and things began to get jumbly. Branches intermingled, leaves overlapped, species intertwined. Inevitably, survival instincts took over. No more Nice Darling Plant Fresh From The Greenhouse. The evolutionary knives came out. Branches stretched and got spindly in an effort to rob neighboring plants of sunlight, roots tussled underground as they vied for water and nutrients. Organization and proportion gave way to chaos and ruthlessness.

I know all this from personal observation and the horticultural methodology I’m developing that I refer to as Gardening in Retrospect, which basically involves realizing how much you’ve screwed up and reflecting on those mistakes from the relative safety of the cement patio. Gardening in Retrospect has certain harmonies with Darwinism and Nature Knows Best. And if you don’t mind, me retrospecting while sipping a nice cold IPA.

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